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Theatre design in a heritage context

Combining theatre design and heritage practice to create Marlowe Kit’s immersive exhibition, Kent’s Remarkable Writers: The World’s of Christopher Marlowe, Aphra Behn and Joseph Conrad

In part one of this insight into Marlowe Theatre’s journey with its new heritage building venue, The Marlowe Kit, Pioneering Canterbury Producer, Cat Buffrey, discusses the concept and design principles behind the exhibition.

The ambition of the Pioneering Canterbury project at The Marlowe Kit is to reinvigorate and breathe new life into this historically important and inspiring building, linking the past with the modern world using an innovative mix of theatre and heritage to tell the story of Canterbury and its rich literary history. 

Putting a heritage building centre stage

The Kit had previously been Canterbury’s Heritage Museum (1987 to 2017), and was home to a number of items belonging to the city’s Museums and Galleries Collections. To reflect this previous life of the building, Pioneering Canterbury’s project plan included a temporary exhibition, and it was decided that the theme would be Kent’s Remarkable Writers, with a particular focus on three world-famous writers, their works and lives, the times in which they lived. 

The previous Heritage Museum had been a traditional, object-focused museum with lots of different exhibits squeezed in, but this meant that the building itself had got a bit lost, and for us, this historically important 12th Century building was the star object. So, putting the building on show and giving it space to breathe, using carefully selected objects, sound and digital installations to help tell the stories of the exhibition without over-powering the spaces, was the first key factor to take into consideration. 

Secondly, as The Marlowe is a theatre, and two of the three writers who we had decided to focus on were playwrights, bringing an element of theatricality and play to our exhibition seemed a natural avenue to explore. Therefore, finding a way to fuse heritage and theatre to create a contemporary and modern take on an exhibition to be enjoyed by all ages was the challenge.

Creating a narrative

Gallus Studio, a London-based design company, had been engaged to provide an initial concept design for the layout of the exhibition spaces. This helped to plan out the use of the spaces from a practical point of view, and introduced the idea of creating clear and distinct areas for each of the writers by choosing a colour for each and hanging curtains or painting the walls around each writer’s area in those colours. 

The process with Gallus helped to give the exhibition a structure and focus in terms of how to use the physical space and create an initial visual language, but when I joined the project towards the end of 2018, what still needed to be found was clear narrative for the exhibition and what we wanted our visitors to experience.

Object-based storytelling

Taking the idea of theatricality, I proposed more of an immersive experience with opportunities for visitors to ‘have-a-go’, enriched by key objects from the collection, which was agreed by the Marlowe’s Project Team. 

marlowe theatre kit pioneering canterbury immersive design joseph conrad chirstopher marlowe

This approach of having one authentic object in each area with its own compelling story providing context and insight into the worlds of the writers, then guiding visitors into areas giving an immersive experience of that world, answered two questions.  

As well as creating a modern and Marlowe-specific approach to the exhibition, it also gave us a solution to the fact that, although the collection available to us was quite extensive, for Christopher Marlowe and Aphra Behn it contained relatively few objects that could be directly related to the two writers to form part of an engaging and coherent narrative as we wanted to tell it.  

For the Joseph Conrad, we were fortunate enough to have access to many wonderful items that had actually belonged to the family and been in their home in Kent.

Defining the spaces

We therefore now had a signature style and a clear vision of what our exhibition would look like and contain:

Foyer / Introduction: An introduction for visitors through digital installations and a soundscape.

The Great Hall: Benches, cushions and a small stage (which could also be used for performances and workshops) evoking a theatre set-up where visitors could sit and take in the magnificent building, plus projected interpretation panels giving more information about The Kit and the Exhibition.

Christopher Marlowe, Aphra Behn and Joseph Conrad Sections: Each area to have an introduction to the writer, a key object connected to that writer and/or the world he/she lived in, and a theatrical/immersive area where visitors could learn more through have-a-go activities.

In part two, Marlowe Theatre’s Associate Designer, Rachel Smith, discusses immersive design in Kent’s Remarkable Writer’s exhibition

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